Tuesday, September 13, 2011

MyPlate - With Sponsors Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

Today I've got the great pleasure of presenting you with a guest post from my friend and newly minted RD, Andy Bellatti. Andy's blog, Small Bites, is one of my must reads - if you care about food and food politics, you probably ought to make it one of yours.

Here's his most recent take on America's MyPlate:

With Sponsors Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

It has been slightly over three months since the United States Department of Agriculture's newest food icon, MyPlate, launched. Despite the "this will help Americans fight obesity and chronic disease" PR spin, I was rather underwhelmed by the illustration.

Last week marked the launch of the first MyPlate themed message – "make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” – via a national private-sector partnership program.

According to the MyPlate website, these partners are expected to “promote nutrition content in the context of the entirety of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans” and “specifically disseminate... Dietary Guidelines messages”, among other requirements.

Sounds wonderful and idyllic; until you take a look at who the partners are. The page that lists these companies and organizations offers this quote from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack:

"By partnering with USDA, corporations win, USDA wins, and the American consumer wins. That's a win-win-win situation!"

Alas, the hyperbolic "win-win-win" quickly turns into a sobering "lose-lose-lose" when you dig into what these organizations stand for – and who's funding them. Consider the following examples:

1) American Society for Nutrition: Their slogan -- "excellence in nutrition research and practice" – sounds earnest, right?. Guess again. Among the companies that support ASN's mission (by funding educational programs): Coca Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Mars Inc., McDonald's, PepsiCo, The Salt Institute, and The Sugar Association.

2) International Food Information Council: According to the folks at Sourcewatch, "[IFIC's] staff members hail from industry groups such as the Sugar Association and the National Soft Drink Association, and it has repeatedly led the defense for controversial food additives including monosodium glutamate, aspartame (Nutrasweet), food dyes, and olestra." I can say from personal experience that a few years ago, I briefly met an IFIC executive who dismissed skepticism towards industry-funded research. One sentence of hers -- which, years later, I still vividly recall -- was: "So what if Coca-Cola funds a study? Science is science!". Not quite; objectivity tends to take a backseat when industry gets involved.

PS: IFIC is also staunchly in favor of genetically modified foods.

3) Institute of Food Technologists: In short, a group that profits from food processing. Any time artificial dyes and flavors or synthetic fats and sweeteners are questioned for safety, you are bound to see an IFT spokesperson immediately pipe up in their defense.

4) Produce for Better Health Foundation: This sounds so innocuous, especially when you consider they are behind the federal 'Fruits & Veggies: More Matters' campaign. While this group is all about produce, their stance on pesticides – “consumers are frightened for no reason!” -- certainly raises an eyebrow.

Their list of donors includes some names that are far from synonymous with 'health': Campbell's Soup Company, McDonald's, Monsanto Vegetable Seeds, and Syngenta (an agricultural biotech company).

The above-mentioned examples are the ones that stood out to me most, but they are not the totality of what I consider to be partnerships incongruous to a national message of health.

There's Weight Watchers, which manufactures a wide array of highly processed, and usually sugar-laden “food”. The National Restaurant Association is also listed. MyPlate is teaming up with an organization that is vehemently against calorie postings on menus, and strongly argues for “personal responsibility.” If anything, shouldn't MyPlate encourage Americans to cook more meals at home and reduce the take-out and eat-out habit? The presence of The American Dietetic Association as a partner may seem like a 'good fit', but they take funding from the likes of Coca Cola, Pepsi Co, and Hershey's, and are ultimately in bed with Big Food.

And so, three months out, my initial critiques of MyPlate have only been cemented and magnified as a result of these partnerships. For those who look at this with far rosier glasses than I, riddle me this: how can we truly conceive of bringing about substantial change when the same companies that continually pump out the nutritionally inferior, sugar/dye/pesticide/GMO-laden "foods" that are a direct threat to health are also sponsoring government efforts to improve the health of Americans?
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog and can be followed on Twitter.